This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database and are therefore entirely realistic even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Erwin was a big slacker. He blamed his lack of oomph on low blood pressure and being tall and skinny, but that was an overstatement at best. Those characteristics were almost certainly the cause of his vision greying out if he stood up too quickly but didn’t explain why he was a slacker. He also tried to blame his lethargy on depression. He was certainly cynical, but that was a temperament, not a condition.
Erwin would have failed the marshmallow test as a child, or even as an adult—not because he lacked self-control, but because he doubted the future. A marshmallow in the hand now, he would reason, was worth two in the future. “And besides,” he would say, “isn’t one marshmallow enough?”
As a student, he worked exactly enough to pass, not one iota more. In his view, a pass was a pass, and anything more was a waste. As a worker, he did as much as he was told and did training only as much as was needed. Again, he reasoned, if the job got done, it was done, and any more was a waste.
Erwin passed up every opportunity for promotion, training, or advancement. He earned enough for his needs, had no need to boss others around, and anything more was a waste.
At age 55, he was the oldest technician in the crew and serviced the machines everyone else viewed as a stepping stone to better things. He worked on industrial washing machines and driers, disinfection washers, and steam presses.
In his call system inbox for today was a scheduled maintenance ticket at a local nursing home to service driers, but there was a higher priority call at the nursing home on the same block. Erwin scanned details and read that the charge nurse had reported a bad odor in the laundry room. Erwin checked the equipment list and saw that they were using a pair of older, refurbished 250lb washers. Erwin frowned and read that this was the third repeat call for the same problem. Erwin drew some replacement filters from stores and packed in extra sponge swabs and borax paste in case this was a mold problem.
Henrietta was the charge nurse at the rest home and had logged the service call with a growing sense of frustration and irritation. She had better things to do with her time than complaining about smells of urine in the laundry room. Technicians had come several times before, but the nurses were adamant that as soon as the room was used again, the smell would return. Henrietta wondered if the ebb and flow of the smell was due to use of one specific machine, whether it was a particular person, or if they maybe had a resident who was wandering in at night and peeing in there.
When Henrietta saw Erwin draw up outside the rear entrance, she mentally rolled her eyes. He was a nice enough guy, the nurses had agreed among themselves, and they had all grudgingly admitted that his work was thorough, but he was such a tortoise. The nurses had a fast-paced work environment and tended to juggle several tasks at the same time, and they found Erwin’s slow, single-tracked work both frustrating and draining, and he often got underfoot or had lots of questions.
One of the nurses had previously remarked that if Erwin moved any slower, he would be dead. Another suggested that he would be dead for 30 minutes before anyone realized. Recalling the discussion, Henrietta smiled, but also reflected that maybe Erwin was the right person to get to the bottom of why there was intermittently a strong urine smell in the laundry.
Erwin sniffed carefully, like a connoisseur of stinks. “Similar to urine, but not quite. More like … chloramine.” Erwin changed tack, because this was not a filter or mold thing, and started thinking of faults that might relate to the closed system of cleaning chemicals used in the washing and disinfection cycles. He reviewed the chemicals used by this model—sodium hypochlorite, phosphoric acid, and citric acid—and checked each of the supply bottles in case they had been overfilled, spilled, or had been leaking. Next, he removed the back of each machine, and with an inspection lamp, looked over the pumps, exchangers, filters, and valves. There was evidence of rats—droppings, hair, and tooth marks—but these seemed old. Erwin removed wads of accumulated lint, some that had been used as a nest by rats at some point. Clouds of old dust flurried as he extracted the lint, and Erwin coughed, his nose and throat burning and his eyes watering.
Sitting back, Erwin noticed that there were shiny spots on the side panels between the machines. Giving them a bit of a shove, and then peering underneath them, he realized that they had become unbalanced because some of the adjustable feet had lost their nylon pads. Erwin rose to his feet and plodded over to his toolbox to get a few things. He felt a bit light-headed, and his vision clouded briefly. He waited for his vision to clear and then retrieved a set of flat-end spanners, a spirit level, and new pads. Crouching behind the machines, he set about re-leveling them.
Having established that there had been significant vibration over time, Erwin changed direction slightly on where the smell might be coming from, and he started checking components and assemblies that might have been rubbing against something or have rattled loose. Erwin felt carefully under each unit, avoiding the various sharp edges of the metal rails and mounts that could easily slice open an unwary hand. Erwin ran his fingers gently down one of the 1″-diameter reinforced hoses that supplied the chemicals under pressure and came across a point where the hoses curved together; he could feel a long flat spot and fine cracks in all of them where they had been rubbing against the vibrating frame.
Erwin felt the hoses suddenly give, fluid squirted over his hand, and there was a burning sensation up the arm that was deep inside the machine. He pulled his hand out quickly and peered at a rash of spots on his forearm, but his eyes were watering and his vision was too blurred to see clearly, or to notice small blisters forming higher up on his arm.
Erwin rushed to the basin to wash the liquids off his hand but was doubled over the sink and retching before he could open the faucet. Gasping for breath, his chest was tight, and he just couldn’t suck in enough air to fill his lungs. The chlorine gas that had been released by the chemicals mixing every time the hoses flexed and leaked, now reached critical levels as the gushing fluids mixed freely across the cement floor and Erwin collapsed heavily.
By the time Erwin had crawled to the door, the chlorine gas had reached fatal levels, and it was 30 minutes before the fumes caused Nancy, a visiting registered nurse, to investigate and raise the alarm.